Study Identifies Site Where Crusader King Richard the Lionheart Defeated Saladin

In September 1191, the English monarch’s forces secured victory over the sultan’s army at the Battle of Arsuf

Battle of Arsuf
Today, the figurative field of battle has become a literal one: Israel's Sharon Plain. Rafael Lewis

An Israeli archaeologist says he’s pinpointed the precise location of one of the Third Crusade’s most famous clashes: the 1191 Battle of Arsuf, which pitted English king Richard the Lionheart’s Christian forces against Saladin’s Muslim army in what Richard Spencer of the Times deems a “great but ultimately pyrrhic victory.”

Historians have long known that the September 7 battle took place in a coastal plain north of what is now Tel Aviv, near a medieval settlement known as Apollonia or Arsuf. Richard’s Crusaders had conquered the port of Acre and were marching south to Muslim-held Jaffa when they met Saladin’s men, inflicting heavy losses while sustaining few casualties of their own. The win allowed the Crusaders to take control of Jaffa but failed to deliver a fatal blow to the Muslim forces.

Researchers have studied the conflict extensively, but the particulars of where the fighting took place and why the armies’ leaders decided to engage in that exact spot remain the subject of intense debate, reports Ariel David for Haaretz.

Rafael Lewis, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa, used historical records and archaeological finds to identify the battle’s long-lost location: Sharon Plain, an open field northeast of the ruins of Arsuf. His findings appear in the latest issue of Tel Aviv University Sonia and the Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology’s Monographic Series.

Richard, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Philip II of France launched the Third Crusade in response to Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187. Buoyed by the successful siege of Acre in July 1191, Richard next set his sights on a key port city: Jaffa.

“Ultimately, Richard and the Crusaders wanted to reconquer Jerusalem, but first the monarch decided to march south to capture Jaffa,” Lewis tells the Jerusalem Post’s Rossella Tercatin.

Study Identifies Site Where Crusader King Richard the Lionheart Defeated Saladin
A 19th-century depiction of the Battle of Arsuf Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

According to historical accounts, the battle broke out when Saladin’s forces attacked the enemy’s rear guard. Though Richard had given orders to draw the Muslim army in by allowing it to attack, several Crusaders broke ranks and launched a premature charge, leaving their leader with little choice but to go all in, according to Haaretz. The Crusaders routed Saladin’s men but held back at the tree line, fearful of walking into an ambush. This decision may have saved the sultan’s forces from facing total annihilation.

To figure out where the action occurred, Lewis scoured medieval texts, maps and aerial photographs in hopes of imagining what the landscape might have looked like to combatants. Per the Post, he also analyzed hours of available daylight, the angle of the sun and local weather conditions at the time of the battle.

Everything Lewis considered converged on Sharon Plain. A preliminary archaeological survey appears to corroborate the proposed location, reports Haaretz, unearthing medieval artifacts including arrowheads, a horseshoe nail and a fragment of iron that could have been armor.

“Ultimately I believe that one of the reasons why the battle happened in the particular spot I identified is because Saladin did not believe that Richard was marching towards Jaffa but that at that point he and his troops were going to turn inland in the direction of Jerusalem,” Lewis tells the Post. (In other words, the archaeologist speculates that Saladin only risked a head-on battle with the Crusaders because he thought they were about to turn toward Jerusalem, which, incidentally, they had no intention of doing.)

Adrian Boas, an archaeologist at Haifa University who was not involved in the research, tells Haaretz that the study “gives us a fairly sound idea of where the battle took place.”

He adds, “[I]t’s probably as close we are ever going to get.”

Richard, for his part, took Jaffa but never made a play for Jerusalem, instead opting to negotiate a peace treaty with Saladin in 1192. As Mark Cartwright notes for Ancient History Encyclopedia, “No Crusader army would ever get as close to Jerusalem again.”